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June 1, 2006

Three Stars: The Whips

The Whips. Image courtesy of King Pin Photo and The Whips.In the early 1980s, Washington, D.C. was a mecca for hardcore punk music. The scene was so pure and original that it drew young rockers from literally all over the country, each wanting to mix it up with the original gods of this new radio-unfriendly sound. The names are quite familiar: Minor Threat. Scream. Jawbox. Soulside. State of Alert. Government Issue. Faith. The D.C. hardcore scene was a catalyst for the careers of Henry Rollins and Dave Grohl, while others stayed local like Dischord founder Ian MacKaye who later fronted Fugazi. It was incredibly influential on young rock musicians looking for something beyond the radio and MTV -- sounds which now traditionally define the era -- and spawned a second wave of bands in the 90s (an era which is aptly titled post-hardcore). Two such bands were Trusty and Circus Lupus, both of which moved halfway across the country to join the D.C. hardcore scene and later were signed to Dischord. Another group, Worlds Collide, was formed by Chicago transplant Matt Burger who came to drink the waters of this rock oasis. And for those who were content in their native lands, groups like Squatweiler from North Carolina still were influenced by the underground rock coming out of D.C.

The Whips formed in 2001 from the remnants of the D.C. post hardcore scene, when Lupus drummer Arika Casebolt tapped bassit James Brady from Trusty, guitarist Trip Costner from Squatweiler and vocalist Burger from Worlds Collide. It is this collective experience -- thousands of miles in vans, tons of gigs, hundreds of hours in the recording studio -- and similar musical tastes which each member of The Whips brings to the stage. That September at their first gig, they literally set the P.A. on fire and gave birth to "Hot Rock."

The Whips at Black Cat on May 27, 2006.We caught The Whips last Saturday night in a headlining gig on the Black Cat’s mainstage and in front of a fairly large crowd. Opening song "Better Than Good" began with a deceptive Motown falsetto bee-bop before turning up the volume which had the crowd shaking more than their heads from the start. Burger's vocals are part screaming, part singing, and he is the poster child for Hot Rock with a tamborine and dapper suit. Next up, "Danger Danger" had a Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins feel to it, as Burger leaned out over the crowd with his arms extended to his sides during the song's charging interludes. Costner is a rare breed of contemporary rock guitarist, abandoning all effects pedals for a simple footswitch to toggle between his dirty distorted tones and a relatively-clean channel. Casebolt, for all the noise she brings, appears rather calm on the kit, perhaps this being a result of her extensive rock experience. And Brady, while handling the bass, supports Burger's aggressive vocals with smoother, more melodic backing vocals. Burger and Costner, hardly immune to the heat, removed their sport coats on "12 lbs. of Makeup," and continued their rock onslaught. After "Dave Mustane Sally," Costner announced “We got it going good tonight!” noting his forearm was sore in that hurts-so-good way. We definitely were not oblivious to the fact.

Trip bringing the rock at Black Cat on May 27, 2006."Room Service" opened with a dissonant riff and syncopated mutes before Burger came in with his unique talk-singing similar to rock outfit Louis XIV. Some bands which try to melt various influences into a new sound often still sound like stylistic tugs-of-war, but that is not the case with The Whips. While you can still recognize components of the various styles each member brings to the band’s sound, there is a cohesive blend between the elements at play in their music. The song features a melodic downtempo middle portion, one of the band’s many unique sonic dynamics. "Three" followed, beginning with a jangly clean tone intro riff before exploding into a furious charge which tensed and released underneath Burger and Brady’s dueling vocals. Midsong, the group slipped into a rolling melodic pop-punk verse which seems to be an entirely different song, but perfectly set up the return to the powerful riffs heard earlier in the song before giving way to Trip’s effortless single note guitar work on the outro.

On "Stomp," Costner grabbed his Gibson SG, employed a unique D-A-D-A-D-F tuning, and opened the song with a riff reminiscent of Queen’s "Fat Bottom Girls." After new songs ‘Stomp’ and ‘Red Carpet’ - - during which at one point, Burger had wrapped himself with mic cables while twisting and shaking during the song he dedicated to his “special lady” -- the band rocked out high speed number "Kayti’s Song," sans the song’s namesake Kayti, who came on stage to shake her stuff the last time we saw The Whips opening for Army of Me at the Black Cat back in February. Still, despite the loss, Burger and the rest of the band still had plenty of energy left to cover for her absence. Ten songs wasn’t enough rock for The Whips or the crowd and the band finished their catalogue off with another new song, "California." At the end of the show, I realized there’s only one problem I have with The Whips -- they don’t have any merchandise for sale. Come on guys -- and gal -- let us look Hot Rock too!

Setlist:

Better Than Good
Danger Danger
12 lbs. of Make-Up
Dave Mustaine Sally
Room Service
Three
Stomp
Bellboys
Red Carpet
Kayti’s Song
California (Take a Chance)

Visit them at: http://www.myspace.com/thewhips

See them next: There aren’t any shows scheduled but the band is putting the final touches on their new album to be released later this year.

Questions for The Whips:

Who were the bands which made you want to play rock and roll?

Burger: Scream. Seeing Scream in 1987 made me want to be in a rock and roll band. They’re an old D.C. hardcore band. Dave Grohl came from Scream -- he was their second drummer. Then they fell apart and he went on to join Nirvana.

Costner: As a kid it was a combination of SST bands like The Minutemen, Hüsker Dü and Black Flag. I was always into jazz and fusion, like Jaco Pastorius, Miles Davis and their musicianship. I coupled that with funk and rock. But The Minutemen were the band that set me on fire. They were a band that mixed cool funk rhythms and punk. The SST bands were the first touring bands that didn’t have to be on a major label. And that was a big deal for me.

Brady: A lot of the old English rock bands. The Beatles, of course. If you don’t like The Beetles, you’re a fool! A lot of the old American hardcore bands. Classic rock. My first band, Trusty, moved here because of the D.C. scene. I always liked those melodic hardcore bands like Descendants and 7 Seconds. I pretty much liked anything that wasn’t currently on the radio.

Tell us what brought you all to D.C.

Burger: We all moved here for the D.C. scene. Bad Brains are from D.C., and they are arguably the first American hardcore band. They pretty much invented the style. And then there’s Minor Threat, Mission, Faith, Scream, SOA, Government Issue. Then you have the mid-late 80’s stuff like Soulside and Jawbox. In fact, Brian Baker bassist for Minor Threat has a guitar solo on our new album.

Brady: The thing about the D.C. scene that was different than every other scene is that there was a real ethic about equality. A lot of the places you went on tour over the years, there was this easy going racism or sexism. This kind of stuff was excused and allowed to continue and to ferment, whereas in D.C. it was not like that. Some people thought it went too far in the other direction. I was not one of them -- I liked it. I liked that this was one of the first places where they thought moshing was stupid and prevented women from coming to the front of the stage. I liked that Ian MacKaye stepped up and said "stop this nonsense and think of something creative to do with your bodies." I liked that there was a political bend to the bands here, even if you didn’t necessary see political lyrics, in the way you did and didn’t market yourself.

Burger: Everyone was living the life they were singing about. That’s what it was all about.

Brady: That’s why I think it was so influential nationwide is because there was substance there beyond all the other stuff.

Costner: I came here to record at Inner Ear for two weeks with J. Robbins, and was impressed with the sincerity of Washington and that’s what brought me to move here. I’d recorded lots of records in New York and there was this wall and you couldn’t penetrate it. In D.C., because we’re a bit of an underdog, it’s cool to watch all this different music. I’m also really into the jazz and blues history of this city. I just like the history of the city as being a place where music was important to the community.

What do you like about the current D.C. music scene?

Burger: I think there’s a lot of great bands in the D.C. scene. I like Owls and Crows, Wooly Mammoth, The Hard Tomorrows, Death By Sexy, The Points…all these bands are really kick ass. I like Georgie James -- they are great. There’s just a lot of variety -- a lot of different sounding bands and everyone is friendly with each other. That’s what’s cool about D.C. now. If this was 1987, none of these bands we’re talking about would have spoken to each other. It’s not very cliquey anymore.

Brady: It’s a lot less elitist than it was. A lot of people had commented that there were a lot of problems with it.

Why is that?

Burger: It’s the time itself. Rock and roll itself has changed. Even the independent scene -- it’s completely different. Back then everyone was writing their own rules and it was all brand new. Rock and roll is cycles of independent labels that find the real talent and then become major labels.

And what don’t you like about the D.C. music scene?

Burger: I wish there was another label putting out local bands. There are a lot of great bands here but it’s unfortunate there isn’t a powerhouse label backing them up.

Costner: I wished the over 21 and the under 21 scenes mixed together more.

What is The Whips’ songwriting process?

Brady: Arika comes up with a drum beat, or Trip has a riff, or I have a bassline, and then we all put in suggestions. It’s the exact opposite of every band I’ve ever been in.

Costner: We write the songs and then Matt puts the lyrics to it after. I’ve played with tons of drummers from totally proficient fusion jazz guys to idiot punk rockers and Arika is the most individualistic, unique rock and roll drummer I’ve ever played with. So much of our sound comes from her style.

How would you summarize the attitude of The Whips?

Burger: We’re not in this to get big, or get a big name for ourselves. We’re just in this to rock out and entertain -- ourselves and the people out there.

Brady: We play good shows. Everybody in the band has been in bands and done a lot of stuff. Everyone is on the same page, everyone gets what we’re doing. You don’t have to talk about a lot of things because everyone’s been through it.

Costner: What’s so good about our band is that we’re still able to live in the moment. We’ve perfected the rock and roll delivery device. We’re so comfortable that we don’t even think about it anymore. But however crazy and haphazard the band may seem, we really care about the art of rock and roll. We take it very seriously.


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